JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Rep. Corrine Brown pleaded not guilty to each 24 count of fraud charges in federal court Friday morning in Jacksonville.
Her chief of staff also pleaded not guilty.
"I really do want to speak to you, and first of all let the work I’ve done speak for me,” Brown said outside a federal courthouse Friday.
— Jenna Bourne (@jennaANjax) July 8, 2016
Federal investigators announced Friday that Rep. Corrine Brown and her chief of staff have been indicted for their roles in a conspiracy and fraud scheme involving a fraudulent education charity.
Brown, 69, of Jacksonville, Florida, and her chief of staff, Elias “Ronnie” Simmons, 50, of Laurel, Maryland, were charged in a 24-count indictment with participating in a conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, multiple counts of mail and wire fraud, concealing material facts on required financial disclosure forms, theft of government property, obstruction of the due administration of the internal revenue laws, and filing false tax returns, according to a news release from U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Carla Wiley, one of the people connected to the charity One Door for Education, pleaded guilty in March to federal charges.
"My heart is very heavy. This has been very difficult time for me,” Brown said.
"Congresswoman Brown and her chief of staff are alleged to have used the congresswoman's official position to solicit over $800,000 in donations to a supposed charitable organization, only to use that organization as a personal slush fund," said Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell. "Corruption erodes the public's trust in our entire system of representative government. One of the department's most important responsibilities is to root out corruption at all levels of government and to bring wrongdoers to justice."
“Corrupt public officials undermine the integrity of our government and violate the public’s trust,” said Michelle S. Klimt, special agent in charge of the FBI Jacksonville division. “That is why public corruption is the FBI’s top criminal priority. It is incredibly disappointing that an elected official, who took an oath year after year to serve others, would exploit the needs of children and abuse the charitable hearts of constituents to advance her own personal and political agendas and deliver them with virtually nothing.”
"We've got the rest of the story, and I am looking forward to presenting the rest of the story," Brown said.
Brown and Simmons are accused of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars meant for the nonprofit organization and instead using it for their own personal and professional benefit, said Richard Weber, chief of IRS criminal investigation.
The indictment centers around One Door for Education, through which Brown and Simmons solicited more than $800,000 in donations on the premise the money would be used for college scholarships, school computer drives and other items, investigators said.
Brown and Simmons targeted people and corporate entities whom Brown knew because of her position in the U.S. House of Representatives to get money for the organization, but the donations never went to One Door for Education, investigators said.
Much of the money was deposited to Brown’s personal bank accounts so she could pay taxes she owed, investigators said. More than $200,000 in One Door funds went to pay for events hosted by Brown in her honor, including a golf tournament in Ponte Vedra Beach, receptions at an annual conference in Washington, D.C., a luxury box for a concert in Washington, D.C, and a luxury box for an NFL game in Washington, D.C., investigators said.
Despite the donations given to One Door for Education, only two scholarships totaling $1,200, went to students, investigators said.
Brown said during court on Friday that she gave $16,300 to churches, but federal investigators said they found only half of that in donations.
Simmons is also charged with theft of government property based on the misuse of his position as Brown’s chief of staff to obtain congressional employment for a close relative, according to the federal indictment.
A relative of Simmons’ received $735,000 in government salary payments between 2001 and early 2006 for no known work for the U.S. House of Representatives, investigators said.
More than $800,000 of the relative’s salary, between 2009 and late 2015, was transferred to Simmons’ personal bank account to pay his personal credit cards and loan payments on his boat, investigators said.
Brown is also accused of filing false tax returns and not reporting income she and Simmons received from One Door for Education, investigators said.
Brown appeared on materials, such as brochures, for the group, including a golf tournament at which money was raised.
Brown’s attorney has accused federal investigators of a sloppy investigation and intentional leaks to the media.
“Congresswoman Brown is the subject of an indictment today, but in reality, she has endured a one-side inquisition in the court of public opinion,” attorney Elizabeth White said.
Channel 9’s Christopher Heath spoke with Brown in March, and she said she was "clean," saying that her lawyers had told her to "zip it" and not discuss the federal investigation.
She spoke briefly with reporters on Thursday as she walked through the airport to a waiting van.
“I’m sad, praying,” she said to a reporter as she walked.
She was evasive when he asked her what she was praying about.
“What the community is praying for,” she answered.
“And what’s that?” the reporter asked.
“Well, we’ll find out,” she answered. “Ask them.”
While she didn’t confirm the indictment specifically, Brown said the situation was racially and politically motivated.
She did not elaborate on her claim.
Feds: A car dealer in Jacksonville gave $7k to charity, which in turn was used to host event for Rep. Brown at NFL game #BrownIndictment
— Daralene Jones (@DJonesWFTV) July 8, 2016
If convicted, Brown faces 357 years in prison and $5 million in fines for fraud and conspiracy charges.
Despite the charges against Brown and possible prison time, she can still run for re-election.
Federal rules have said nothing about running while under indictment.
WFTV political analyst Maria Padilla told Eyewitness News this is not the first time Brown has faced questions over her ethics.
“I think that she has been battling all kinds of rumors related to her tenure as a congresswoman for a long time, and I think that she is very good at pushing back,” Padilla said.
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